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Returning to work - a tough sell

Returning to work - a tough sell


In addition to the headline grabbing “Stay Alert” message and traffic light “Alert” system, last night (Sunday 10 May) the UK Prime Minister encouraged the British people to return to work if they are unable to work from home.  To support this, later this week the UK government is expected to publish the "COVID-19 Secure" guidelines. This follows a period of private consultation with business leaders and trade union representatives to ensure public safety measures are adjusted (where appropriate) and implemented to minimise the COVID-19 risks to those returning to their workplaces. Although last night’s the announcement has attracted a very mixed response and created confusion, there are many communications professionals that now have the task of communicating their organisational ‘return to work’ plans to employees, customers, suppliers, contractors and other stakeholders.

My guest blog last week by Occupational Health Physician Dr David Slavin addresses the approaches risk managers and leadership can take and plan for employees’ safe return to work. Appropriate messaging and internal communications are the concluding part of the risk management ‘return to work’ plan.

Getting the timing, narrative, levels of engagement and reassurance to employees has a significant role in executing this plan.  This is especially crucial in light of the Ipsos MORI poll published last week. This was conducted across 14 countries, with Britons the least likely to agree that the economy and businesses should be reopened.  Most remain nervous about leaving home.  Gideon Skinner, Head of Political Research at Ipsos MORI, said:

“Our latest polling across 14 countries shows that Britons are the most cautious when it comes to reopening the economy, being the least keen for businesses to reopen if the coronavirus is not contained. Furthermore, seven in ten Britons say that they will be nervous about leaving the house after the lockdown eases.”

In addition, how employees travel to work must be considered, with the Prime Minister encouraging people to walk or cycle to work.  Ipsos MORI also published survey findings tracking public perceptions on coronavirus. Only 21% of respondents stated they would feel comfortable using public transport. For many however this will be problematic as they rely on public transport to get to work.

Communicators indeed have a tough job developing the right narrative to make people feel safe enough to return to work or places of business activity as lockdown measures are gradually lifted. Communications must be crafted to address lingering anxiety, fear and dread, and turn around the general public’s risk perception.

From a non-occupational risk management perspective, risk perception is something I am very aware of from my NATO post-conflict mission days. Advising leadership, crafting and delivering the narrative and understanding what is shaping people’s perception all play an important role in allaying fears and anxiety.

Crafting the narrative

Contingent on the size of the organisation, the communications function (or someone with responsibility for communications) should be an integral part of the Crisis Management Team or close to the leadershiup.  This is important as they need to understand all the nuances of the situation, and the decisions taken to tackle the issues and challenges with which the leadership is faced.  When planning and crafting the updates to people (employees, clients, customers, etc.) the main dynamics to consider are:

  • Changes: What you are actually announcing.  This is primarily instructional and direct, leaving no room for ambiguity.
  • Facts: Why these changes are happening; references to government announcements and guidelines, new policies and procedures.
  • Tone: How you frame this should reflect the tragic nature of the event.  Be mindful that family and friends will likely be impacted directly somehow: a family member or friend may have suffered or succumbed to COVID-19, is a key worker or has been negatively impacted by the lockdown (e.g. job loss), as well as any mental health issues that may have emerged.
  • Evidence: Include any science, statistics or evidence-based case studies to demonstrate the steps you are taking are solidly backed up.

Communicators are people’s people and are best placed to read situations and language, operating as a filter and sounding board for appropriate content, tone and language.  This will also save valuable time when it comes to approvals. The alternative approach where the ‘post-office’ method is taken, i.e. a brief is given without prior engagement or involvement, will have limited impact and is at risk of being delayed.

Delivering the narrative

As the mainstream media are now covering the latest guidance on returning to work, it is important to deliver your messages in the most relevant and timely manner.  Speed will be of the essence to help shape the risk perception of people leaving their homes to resume ‘new normal’ business activities.  Any unnecessary delays will hand this opportunity over to other sources of information that will influence and help shape people’s perception of the risks of leaving home, travelling and resuming post-COVID-19 activities.

How the narrative is delivered will also have a significant bearing on the landing success of the return to work message.  We are fortunate to have multiple platforms and methods from which to choose, and most crisis communications team members will know what works best for their respective organisations and audiences.  This unprecedented pandemic has impacts on life and public safety: levels of anxiety are high, so some extra considerations should be borne in mind:

  • The spoken word. This is the most reassuring way to deliver information about people’s concerns. For employees, a remote team meeting or townhall is most appropriate: a cascade series of team video calls or a livestream event with the CEO.  For clients and customers, a pre-recorded video message sent out to all, with a Q&A or additional help call-centre option, is something else to consider, as appropriate for the nature of activity.
  • Inclusion. If a staged return to work and re-opening of businesses are planned, it is still important to include all relevant stakeholders, not just those who are returning.  This will also reinforce trust and inclusion with all.
  • Reinforcement: It is likely that many audiences will have similar questions.  Whilst the main messages and changes will be captured in the announcement, a comprehensive FAQ should be sent out for reference.  This will also allay fears and contend with any evidence resistance that may emerge.

Reaction and response

When communicating with people to get them back to work and ‘new normal’ economic activity following COVID-19, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.  If you get the communications right, people will feel safer and the next Ipsos MORI poll will see a significant improvement in how comfortable people are leaving their homes and using public transport.

To get it right, it is critical you have a two-way process with your relevant stakeholders and audiences.  Once again, there are multiple ways to capture the reaction to what is being communicated, contingent on the platform (e.g. emojis, chat boxes, Q&A boxes).  A more detailed response can be acquired in pulse surveys, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Without feedback, by default you are taking a passive approach and, again, will jeopardise this opportunity to influence and help shape people’s perception of the risks.  It cannot be underscored enough how important it is to listen to your stakeholders throughout execution of the return-to-work plan.

In addition to organisational efforts, those made by the government and transportation providers also play a pivotal role.  Where appropriate, actively engage with relevant authorities if this becomes a stumbling block. This is unchartered territory for all of us, so a flexible, multi-dimensional helicopter view is encouraged to ensure the best chance of successfully and safely getting people back to work.

Tomorrow I’ll be blogging about messaging, the “Stay Alert” message and navigating a workable and pragmatic way forward.


“Britons least likely to believe the economy and businesses should open if coronavirus not fully contained”. Ipsos MORI Poll, 28,000 people conducted on April 16 - 19, 14 countries:


Ipsos MORI infographic:


UPDATE: Useful References:

“Guidance to help employers, employees and the self-employed understand how to work safely during the coronavirus pandemic."



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